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Airborne Event is a large mixed media and acrylic painting depicting a nude female figure against a black background covered with brightly coloured patterns. The figure is shown full length and from the front, with the feet and hands flattened and the legs parted. It is made up of a collage of illustrations and photographs of body parts, flowers and insects surrounded by a thin perimeter of blue and yellow paint. The figure is at the centre of the painting, and from behind it emanates a radial pattern that reaches to the four edges of the canvas. This pattern consists of further cut-outs of plants and body parts interspersed with an arrangement of white dots and real marijuana leaves. The figure has no head: in its place is a hexagon filled with cut-and-pasted images of human mouths, and from this hexagon emerges a cluster of multi-sided shapes that fills most of the upper part of the image, each containing colourful images of natural objects in a centrifugal design. The painting has a shiny appearance due to the layer of resin that covers its surface.
Airborne Event was made by the American artist Fred Tomaselli in his studio in Brooklyn, New York, in 2003. By this time Tomaselli was well known for the highly detailed paintings he had been making since the mid-1980s, which typically incorporated found imagery from science magazines and journals, real objects such as prescription pills and plant life, as well as paint and a resin coating. Although they appear meticulously executed and carefully planned, paintings such as Airborne Event are the result of a chaotic process that the artist described in 2011:
I lay all this stuff out on every table in my studio, turn on the music, and then I let it rip. It’s not a cerebral process at all; it’s all gut instinct and intuitive responses to evanescent impulses ... I change my mind, scrape things off, paint over stuff, and drill things out. When it’s all over and I’ve wrecked everything, I neaten things up.
(Quoted in Shields 2010, p.73.)
The title Airborne Event refers to an episode in the 1985 novel White Noise by the American writer Don DeLillo in which a chemical spillage from a train releases a poisonous black cloud that results in the evacuation of a town. Tomaselli places this reference to DeLillo’s novel among a set of allusions to other cultural phenomena that reflect his practice as an appropriation artist and painter. Tomaselli has described Airborne Event as follows:
I was cross-referencing toxic chemical clouds, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and alien space abductions as all conspiring to capture the female figure floating in the night sky at the center of the picture. My reference to an ‘airborne toxic event’ comes right out of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, while the references to alien space abduction probably come from me listening to the cosmic triumvirate of Sun Ra, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and George Clinton.
(Quoted in Shields 2010, p.73.)
Tomaselli grew up amid the counter-cultural scene of 1970s southern California, where escapism was frequently sought through drug use. In Airborne Event the replacement of the figure’s head with colourful patterns and the reference to the Virgin Mary’s transcendence may allude to the hallucinogenic trips experienced by Tomaselli and his friends. The artist has described how his work aims to invoke a transformed reality like that encountered through drug-taking, but one that is induced visually rather than chemically: ‘these chemical cocktails can no longer reach the brain through the bloodstream and must take a different route to altering perception. In my work, they travel to the brain through the eyes.’ (Fred Tomaselli, ‘My Chemical Sublime’, in Fruitmarket Gallery 2010, p.70.)
Cultural appropriation and a focus on escapism are central to works such as Airborne Event. This reflects Tomaselli’s position as a painter working in an era when, in Tomaselli’s view, ‘modernism was coming undone. All that utopianism had been reduced to smoldering rubble and it seemed appropriate to dig into this trash heap of history and see if there was anything worth saving. The one big common denominator in all of this was our culture of escapism’ (quoted in Shields 2010, p.68). In 2004 the art critic John Yau argued that by placing equal emphasis on both creative method and cultural references in his work, Tomaselli formed a new approach to painting when many had declared the art form obsolete: ‘In Tomaselli’s paintings, technique and subject matter are equal partners in a complex, unpredictable dance, which is an all too uncommon occurrence in both postwar and postmodern art.’ (John Yao, ‘Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt’, in Fruitmarket Gallery 2004, p.14.)
Fred Tomaselli: Monsters of Paradise, exhibition catalogue, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 2004, reproduced pp.66, 67 (detail).
Ian Berry (ed.), Fred Tomaselli, exhibition catalogue, Aspen Art Museum, Aspen 2009, pp.93, 206, reproduced p.228.
David Shields, ‘Fred Tomaselli’, BOMB, no.113, Autumn 2010, p.73.
Supported by Christie’s.